There is room for heartbreak but precious little for sentiment in Philip Haas’ THE SITUATION and its look at a particular time during the United States’ occupation of Iraq. Based on the experiences of journalist Wendy Steavenson, it is a stark film done in an almost documentary style that dwells on the contradictions of the eponymous situation, where loyalties are fluid and reality is at best an educated guess.
Connie Nielsen stars as Anna, a hard-bitten war correspondent who has a casual relationship with an American CIA officer (Damien Lewis), and a serious one with the business of getting out the truth of what is happening under the occupation. Venturing beyond the safety of the American Green Zone, she sets out to uncover who killed one of her sources, putting herself, literally, in the crossfire of warring faction each out to either save Iraq from itself, or to gouge as much of the spoils of war for itself that it can. Anna comes to rely, perhaps too much, on Zaid (Mido Hamadi), her cameraman/interpreter, who welcomes her into his home, his family, and his heart. When Anna’s investigation puts her directly in harm’s way, it’s Zaid who is simultaneously her only hope for rescue, and the American’s number one suspect in her disappearance.
Haas and screenwriter Steavenson does not dumb things down when it comes to the complexity. He does point fingers, though, and does so with a refreshing directness. In one perfectly realized scene, he comes as close as may be possible to capture all that is wrong with the occupation forces and their attempts to do good. In it, a suave and seasoned Iraqi diplomat, a veteran of the old regime and a key player in the new one, is talking to an American neophyte in Iraq, one whose cluelessness is painfully obvious. As he gracefully negotiates a spiral staircase with the neophyte in ungainly tow, he explains everything that his companion on the stairs does not know and will, as he judges silently, never fully comprehend about Iraqi history and culture. He is at once infinitely polite while being infinitely condescending in the way that only someone with the wisdom of age and experience and conjure. The younger man, a stand in for every wrong decision made by occupying forces, is left wondrously gobsmacked and even more confused than before.
The through story, the murder of an American intelligence source and the subsequent fallout, is played out competently. All the right tropes are there, as are the themes of trust in all its manifestations, and the sudden bursts of violence that seem to faze no one outside the Green Zone. Nielsen has the right flintiness. She’s absolutely convincing as a woman who can hold her own, and, better, she is equally good as someone who has grown cynical, but not despairing, even when she realizes that footage of an American soldier’s death won’t generate much media interest because it’s been seen so many times before. The moments of unplanned flirtation with Zaid, when he comes unannounced to her hotel room while she dressed in a sensual kimono have a light touch of giddiness about them, as neither one quite knows what to do with their feelings in a, you’ll pardon the word, situation, that they didn’t plan on or for. Lewis, too, is good, with a role that might have been that of a stereotypical diplomat. He infuses intelligence and a passionate moral compass into someone let down on every side.
This is not a film with answers. Rather, it’s a character study and a good one. Those characters, sharply, indelibly drawn, are all victims of what they constantly refer to as THE SITUATION, coping minute by minute with no guarantee that that next minute will arrive. Bringing the chaos down to very human terms redefines the paradigm for thinking about the occupation, and makes this a film that is more than a mere exercise in action/adventure.